Some of our Spitfires are missing: Doubts over existence of 160 WW2 fighter planes in Burma

A former collaborator of David Cundall – the maverick behind the claims – calls him a ‘dreamer’

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The Independent Online

As the media frenzy over the search for Spitfires allegedly buried in Burma ran out of steam last week, with doubts raised about their very existence, the man chiefly responsible for getting the project off the ground was sorely tempted to say "I told you so".

Excitement at the prospect of exhuming up to 160 of the historic warplanes, which, it was claimed, the British had buried at the end of the Second World War, threatened to curdle after the man leading the search, the Lincolnshire farmer David Cundall, called off a press conference on Thursday because the search at Mingaladon airfield in Rangoon had drawn a blank.

Keith Win, the son of a Burmese policeman and founder of the Myanmar-British Business Association, commented: "It could be that they've got completely the wrong aerodrome. We'd been out there a number of times and we couldn't find anything. As soon as you mention Spitfires to David Cundall, he's off, without doing proper research.

"During an earlier dig, they claimed to have found a crate, but there was no picture of the crate and I'm thinking, 'We still haven't found any evidence. There's nothing concrete.' Mr Cundall is claiming there are 160 Spitfires, but the only picture released so far is of a British war veteran holding a framed picture of a Spitfire."

Mr Win went into partnership with David Cundall to recover the airplanes in 1999. Stories about the planes have been in circulation since the early 1970s, and Mr Cundall heard about them from a fellow Spitfire enthusiast in the mid-1990s. The problem was that Burma, in the grip of a brutal military junta and under Western sanctions, was completely out of bounds.

Mr Win said, "Mr Cundall approached me in 1997. He said, 'I'm involved in this project – we've been trying to get into Burma.'" Mr Cundall had found the right person: with friends and relatives on both sides of Burma's political divide, Mr Win had been trying to effect a reconciliation within the country. Subsequently, he had a casual encounter with Brigadier-General Khin Nyunt, one of the leaders of the junta, and requested a meeting, to which Khin Nyunt agreed.

"He must have thought I had come with a message from the British government," said Mr Win, "because at the meeting in his office there was also the Foreign Minister and the Burmese ambassador to London, and a TV crew and photographers. I explained the Spitfire project and they listened politely." As a result, the door to Burma swung open. As a thank you, he gave them "a bottle of whisky and a book about the economy". Like Mr Cundall, Mr Win fell under the spell of the warplane story, and threw himself into the research.

His trawling among veterans yielded the 91-year-old ex-Army private Stanley Coombe, whom Mr Cundall brought out with him to Burma on his current visit, and who claimed last week that they were digging in the wrong place.

"Stanley claimed he had seen six Spitfires being buried," Mr Win said, "and it stuck in his memory because they were such large crates." He was the first real eye-witness they had located – but the fact that he was the only one troubled Mr Win. "I thought, this still sounds far-fetched: why is it that only one person saw the burial?

"In 1997, I contacted Brigadier Derrick Baynham, who had been the aide-de-camp to Reginald Dorman-Smith, the British governor of Burma at the end of the war. He had been an officer in the Special Operations Executive and he said, 'This story cannot be true. I would have known about it. I would have seen documents.' So you had people like him, at a high level, saying 'This is not possible,' and the only person saying yes was a private."

Relations between the two men foundered in 2000 when Mr Win says Mr Cundall dumped him in Rangoon and vanished. "He left me stranded. He ran out of money and said he was going back to the UK to get some. I waited for him for eight days in a service apartment in Rangoon, and I couldn't contact him. Finally, I realised he wasn't coming back." He says he paid the accommodation bill of £5,500 out of his own pocket then spent years trying to get the money back.

Another disenchanted former collaborator has a similar story. Malcolm Weale is a geophysicist and aviation archaeologist who runs a Norfolk-based company called Geofizz Ltd. "I met Mr Cundall in 2004 after I was involved in a dig for a Hurricane in London," he says. "I was out in Burma with his team for about a month, but I was pretty much left stranded: they just cleared off, leaving me with a debt of several thousand pounds to pay. I had to do a bunk from the hotel early in the morning."

During his work with Mr Cundall in Burma, he said, "we got some very interesting readings, but they could be lots of other things – buried pipes, metals and so on: you always pick up anomalies at an airfield.

"David seems a little bit erratic: he runs from pillar to post, promising things to many different people. He's a dreamer – he wants to make himself out to be a bit of an Indiana Jones. Myself, I'm very, very sceptical about the story."

By contrast, Keith Win still believes the search could yield results. "I think there might be two or three Spitfires, probably crashed," he said.

"They were used in that theatre. There are three airfields to look in… The game's not over yet."